As fate would have it, I entered the human rights community following the killing of 13 young Palestinians. They were shot to death by police in central Israel and the Galilee exactly 20 years ago. I eventually joined the legal team at Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which represented the families of the slain.
The generation I belonged to was the “stand tall generation,” which demanded recognition of the elements of our Palestinian national identity as an integral part of our Israeli citizenship. This generation’s erect posture was suited to a legal battle waged by citizens to exert the full force of the law against those responsible for their bereavement, which was both personal and national.
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Twenty years after those events, my conclusion is that if anything was crushed and eroded by the force of this battle, it was our faith in the use of legal tools to obtain justice for the victims, to the point where it seems that all that remains of the upright generation are the families and the headstones on the graves of the slain.
The whitewashing of the circumstances of the death of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, an educator, in 2017 is a kind of microcosm of what happened two decades ago and continues to this day. Back then, as now, the state prosecutor and the attorney general refrained from any direct, public criticism of the police and its snipers, even though a state commission of inquiry headed by then-Justice Theodor Or concluded that the police shooting that killed the 13 young protesters was unjustified.
Then, too, law enforcement officials refrained from criticizing the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct for its criminal negligence in investigating those incidents, in which so many citizens were killed and wounded. But back then, the chutzpah was even more overt. The officials responsible didn’t operate in darkness, under the cover of internal correspondence that the law theoretically allows to remain classified, the way former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan did in the Abu al-Kiyan case.
Back then, the state prosecutor and the attorney general didn’t hesitate to publicly back the Justice Ministry department shortly after the closure of the cases against the police officers was announced. They did so even though by law, they are the people to whom the department’s conclusions can be appealed if the bereaved families so choose. Their need to defend “our brothers in investigating the killing of Arabs” forgot what their official roles are and failed to offer even a pretense of fulfilling them.
The state prosecutor didn’t hesitate to publicly back the department, which he is supposed to oversee, even though he was one of its founders and its former head. The term “conflict of interests” is relevant to law enforcement officials only when they accuse others, not, heaven forbid, when the accusations relate to their own jobs.
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But both the attorney general and the state prosecutor outdid themselves when they decided, on their own initiative, to review the department’s findings, which they themselves had backed just a few days earlier. They conducted the review themselves, and it resulted in Attorney General Menachem Mazuz issuing an embarrassing document in 2008 that contradicted the Or Commission’s findings and backed the department’s failed, obstructive investigation, which legitimized a violent concept of policing identical to military doctrine, which sees protesters as enemies who must be defeated.
The families have been watching this whitewash of the investigation into the killing of their loved ones for 20 years now. In today’s terms, the families could accurately be described as active crime victims. The pain of their loss never undermined their strength in fighting for the implementation of their just demands.
They never missed a single meeting, a single public event or a single press conference. They made sure to study and understand the process from start to finish. They heard with their own ears how their sons were killed, and some even saw with their own eyes as the people who killed their children took the witness stand and brazenly lied. They carried signs, marched through the streets and heaped criticism on their political representatives.
Thanks to the families’ years of protests, we, the lawyers, were exposed not just to the unsurprising result that the officers were given immunity, but also to the tainted process of investigating the truth and the failure to bring those responsible to justice. For us, the families defined what it means to be responsible for a person’s right to life, beyond what we had previously known. Thanks to them, we learned that a state that doesn’t conduct a swift, proper, unbiased investigation into its citizens’ deaths at the hands of its own armed forces blatantly violates its obligation to respect its citizens’ right to life.
Anyone who refrains from investigating and indicting a police officer who aims a lethal weapon at a young unarmed demonstrator shares responsibility for the victim’s injury or death. The statute of limitations on responsibility for this investigation’s failures hasn’t expired even after two decades. But perhaps, two decades after these events, somebody, somewhere, will come to his senses and decide to do his job properly.
Abeer Baker is part of Adalah’s legal team, which represented the families of those killed in October 2000 before the Or Commission and other bodies.